Getting to know Alexandra Philbin: A Q&A with an Irish language activist

Photo provided by Alexandra Philbin and used with permission.

Europe’s linguistic diversity is increasingly reflected in online spaces, where regional and minority language speakers and their communities leverage digital tools and media to preserve, promote, and revitalize their language heritage. In this spirit, Rising Voices’ online campaign @EuroDigitalLang has been curating a rotating X (formerly Twitter) account. Here, language activists and advocates narrate their personal stories in their own words, engaging directly with their audience and sharing ongoing challenges as well as successes.

In this email interview, Rising Voices spoke to upcoming host Alexandra Philbin, a PhD a student at of the University of Valencia, who has been working with the Irish language. You can follow Alexandra on X at @Alexandra_Phil_, as she manages the account the week of April 29–May 5, 2024.

Rising Voices (RV): Please tell us about yourself and your language-related work.

Alexandra Philbin (AP): I am originally from a small town called Domhnach Beathach outside of Baile Átha Cliath (Dublin), but I have been living in Valencia for the past three years. I first learned Irish in school and in immersion summer camps in Baile Átha Cliath and Conamara, and I have been involved in promoting the language since I was a teenager.

Currently, I teach Irish to adult learners and research the experiences of Irish speakers in Baile Átha Cliath. I’m carrying out this research as a PhD candidate at the University of Valencia and I also look at the experiences of Valencian speakers in Valencia. I started learning Valencian when I moved to the city in 2021 and am massively inspired by the speakers I have met here.

I also work as a mentor with the Endangered Languages Project, an organization that aims to support minoritized-language communities around the world by providing resources, building connections and sharing ideas across borders. In this role, I get to meet speakers who are doing amazing work to promote their languages, and I feel extremely lucky.

RV: What is the current state of your language both online and offline?

AP: Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and over 1.8 million people there claim some competence in it, according to the latest census results. Adding this to the 228,600 people in the six counties of the North of Ireland that have some ability in the language means that over two million on the island of Ireland are somewhat competent in the language. There are also speakers living all over the world, particularly in areas where many Irish people have emigrated historically. There is a higher proportion of speakers in areas of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht.

There are many efforts happening to increase the number of Irish speakers. Schools are an important focus for these efforts and there is huge demand for Irish-medium education. There are classes outside the formal education system for adult learners, including a great offering of online classes. There have been some important gains in recent years in the media, as the Irish-language channel TG4 launched a brand-new children’s channel last year. There are also many digital projects that aim to support language learning and use, including online conversation groups, dictionaries and grammar tools, podcasts and Irish-language servers.

It is important to note that speakers face many challenges when trying to live their lives in Irish. This is reflected by the fact that while 1.8 million people claim some competence in the language, only 71,968 people in the Republic of Ireland use the language on a daily basis outside of the education system, according to census figures. There are many dedicated activists working against this situation and drawing attention to the struggles of Gaeltacht communities and speakers across the country and fighting against the dominance of English.

RV: What are your motivations for seeing your language present in digital spaces?

AP: I started thinking more about using Irish in digital spaces in 2020, when COVID-19 came to Ireland. Up until that point, I had mainly used the language in person — in my schooling and professional life, and socially.

When the pandemic started, I was living with my parents and only speaking English in person, so all of my communication in Irish was suddenly brought online. From my bedroom, I was catching up with how friends were doing in lockdown in Irish, attending work meetings in Irish, studying to be an Irish-language teacher for adults, going to a weekly Zoom gathering for Irish speakers. Having access to those digital spaces allowed me to continue to use Irish at a time when I had been cut off physically from other speakers — something that provided a lot of relief during a very difficult period.

Moving to Valencia soon afterwards meant that I was still separated physically from a lot of my Irish-speaking friends in Ireland and the events that I would have attended were I living there. I still use the language on a daily basis thanks to the digital forms of communication that I started using in 2020. This means the world to me, and I know it does for other Irish speakers scattered across the globe.

RV: Describe some of the challenges that prevent your language from being fully utilized online.

AP: Before I moved to Valencia, I saw myself as being very dedicated to Irish-language promotion. Yet, when I came to Valencia, learned Valencian and started meeting language activists through the University of Valencia, I was really struck by how my language practices in Irish didn’t reflect those of the people I was meeting, who strive to use Valencian in every interaction. My use of Irish was mainly limited to people who I knew spoke Irish, rather than with strangers in spaces not associated with the language, and if I was posting publicly online, I’d do bilingual posts in Irish and English. In my daily interactions, I was constantly giving in to the dominance of English in public life, both online and offline, without really thinking about it too much.

Ideologies, then, around where and with whom Irish should be used, and also around what counts as language activism in a given context, were really affecting my use of the language online and are a major challenge preventing the language being fully utilized. Helping speakers to identify these ideologies, recognize the inequality that has led to our public interactions being so often in English and reflect on how our daily interactions can challenge or sustain this inequality is really important.

RV: What concrete steps do you think can be taken to encourage younger people to begin learning their language or keep using their language?

AP: In order to help the younger generation recognize those ideologies that I mentioned, it is important that we openly discuss issues of power, justice and equality when we are teaching and using our languages. I studied Irish to degree level and there was little to no focus during my formal education on language activism. While I appreciated a lot of the literature that I studied, I think there is a major need to include sociolinguistics in the curriculum for students of Irish at all levels. I think we should encourage discussions around these ideas at community gatherings and events and work out ways together to challenge ideologies that limit us linguistically.

As I described, moving to Valencia and meeting language activists here was pivotal for me in thinking through my own use of Irish and I think that speaks to something important: how much we have to learn from connecting with each other.

Bringing young people together from different minoritized-language communities means they can share experiences and ideas, and also see that they are not alone and are part of a global fight for a more just world. Initiatives like the @EuroDigitalLang project provide a great space for such connections. These connections are also central to our work at the Endangered Languages Project so I’m really excited to be taking over the rotating account for the week.

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